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UNC-Pitt Preview: Panthers Playing Physical

No. 23 Pittsburgh hosts North Carolina on Thursday night (7pm/ESPN).

Series Record: North Carolina leads, 6-3

Last Five Games: North Carolina leads, 4-1

Getting to Know Pittsburgh

The Panthers are one of the ACC Coastal Division’s many surprise contenders in 2015. Pittsburgh enters the game with a 6-1 (4-0 ACC) record despite losing star running back James Conner with a season-ending injury in the opener against Youngstown State. A consistent passing game, punishing ground game and head coach Pat Narduzzi’s defense have allowed Pitt to prosper this season, setting the stage for a pivotal ACC Coastal clash on Thursday night.

Offense

Entering the season, reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner looked to carry the Pitt offense. His season-ending injury has forced the Panthers to find different ways to score points, and they found an answer in freshman running back Qadree Ollison, who has rushed for 662 yards this season and scored seven touchdowns. The Panthers are undefeated in games in which Ollison has scored a touchdown this season.

While Ollison has played well for the Panthers, Tyler Boyd is undoubtedly this offense’s brightest star. The junior wide receiver has 489 yards and four touchdowns on 53 receptions this season, the 15th most catches by any player in the country. Boyd is also a threat in the return game, although he has yet to break a long return this season.

Junior transfer quarterback Nathan Peterman serves as a game manager for Pittsburgh. He averages fewer than 160 pasing yards per game, but his ability to make good decisions with the ball makes him a valuable asset for Pitt. Peterman has only thrown three interceptions – against nine touchdowns - this season, tied for 107th-most in the nation.

The offensive line has shown flashes of strong play throughout the season. Ollison and fellow running back Chris James combine to average 5.5 yards per carry, although Peterman has been sacked 16 times through seven games.

Defense

Narduzzi’s defense boasts one of the most unique schemes in the country. The idea of the Panthers defense is simple: most college quarterbacks rely on short passes over the middle or swing passes to the outside, so his scheme is designed to take away the easy options.

After plenty of success as defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Narduzzi has quickly and seamlessly installed his philosophy in Pittsburgh. The Panthers are ranked 16th nationally in total defense, allowing 308 yards per game. Pitt has 10 takeaways on the season, and are ranked in the top half of the conference in scoring defense (21.6).

Freshman defensive back Jordan Whitehead leads the unit in tackles with 52. Whitehead was the No. 1 Pennsylvanian recruit in 2015, and while he didn’t earn a starting job out of the gate, he has steadily improved as the season has progressed.

Junior linebacker Matt Galambos is capable of punishing a quarterback with his strength and his hands. Galambos leads the team in sacks with five and has also recorded two interceptions.

The defensive line has also done a tremendous job of getting to the quarterback. Pitt is ranked 14th in the nation with 22 sacks this season.

The Pitt secondary has health questions entering Thursday’s game. Free safeties Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb are both currently questionable for the game. In a defense that dares the opposing team to throw deep passes, the Panthers need all of the help they can get up top.

For North Carolina, the challenge will be to find that explosive spark it utilized against Wake Forest, and channel it against Pittsburgh. The Panthers will make it difficult for the Tar Heels to chip away at them one small chunk at a time, while baiting Marquise Williams to attempt difficult throws downfield.

Notable Quotes

“Coach [Larry] Fedora and Seth Littrell have done a nice job with that offense. I’ve had some experience with Seth when he was at Indiana in 2012 and 2013. He was the offensive coordinator there with, I believe, Kevin Wilson, because it looks very similar. We’ve been practicing a lot of 2012, 2013 stuff that they tried to do against us [at Michigan State] back in those years. That’s the tempo and the stuff they like to do so that’s been an extra bonus for us.” – Narduzzi

“It’s a road game, they’re a good team, and the Coastal is at stake. There’s a lot of challenges ahead of us for this game. It’s a big game. I can’t wait to play it, for sure. It’s going to be a lot of fun. They’re a tough, physical football team, they like to run the ball, so we’ve just got to get our game ready.” – UNC running back Elijah Hood

Matchup To Watch:

UNC’s Marquise Williams vs. Pittsburgh’s Defense
Williams has a history of shredding the Panthers on the ground. He ran for 79 yards and a pair of touchdowns at Heinz Field in 2013, and punished Pittsburgh for 122 yards and three touchdowns in Chapel Hill last year. Narduzzi’s arrival has brought about a new scheme which will try to limit the UNC quarterback’s success in both read-option and run-pass plays.

Littrell and Fedora won’t shy away from taking shots down the field against 1-on-1 coverage, although Williams’s ability to manage the game and pick up on Pitt’s zone looks and the accompanying blitzes will determine UNC’s success on Thursday night. Finding pay dirt on the deep throws will only make the Tar Heels job that much easier.


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